The 16 Best Albums of 2016
And the 75 songs we had on heaviest rotation, in one playlist
David Bowie. Prince. Glenn Frey. Merle Haggard. Sharon Jones. Leonard Cohen. Phife Dawg. George Michael. Leon Russell.
For lovers of music, 2016 was truly the worst of times.
But it was also the best of them.
So we made you a playlist celebrating the 75 songs that were on heaviest rotation at InsideHook HQ this year, and below, you’ll find 16 albums we believe are worth a listen start-to-finish.
There’s a country-rock love poem from a man to his son. The renaissance of soul music at the time we need it most. And the dark, dazzling swan song of Mr. Bowie himself.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
In a time when the single reigns supreme, concept albums are a rarity. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is Simpson’s letter to his first and only son, whom he’s often apart from due to a busy touring schedule. Each song comes with lessons from a dad who learned the hard way, from his stint in the Navy to doing hard labor on a railroad. This is what country music used to be, and Simpson is a godsend to the genre, reviving the legacies of Haggard, Jennings and Cash by combining earnest lyrics and twangy guitar licks with a big, modern sound.
Standout track: “In Bloom”
Why you should care: Simpson’s wife suggested he add the Nirvana cover because it was a part of his past. He renders it anew by slowing things down and adding a whining pedal steel and the uplifting brass of the Dap Kings, who perform on all of the album’s tracks.
I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam
I Had a Dream That You Were Mine is both the title of the Walkmen/Vampire Weekend alums’ debut album and the opening lyrics of its first song, but it is not the title of that first song, which is called “1000 Times” … as if no one could decide which would be the album’s central theme: longing or futility. Equal them out, put them together, and you have the the marrow of their collaboration: love exalted, love exhausted.
Standout Track: “1000 Times”
Why you should care: In these synthetic times, here is some music made for howling to.
Day of the Dead
Thanks to the psychedelic fog that has twirled about them like some hippie chick’s hula hoop since the ‘60s, it’s easy to forget the cornerstone of the Grateful Dead wasn’t great drugs, but great songs. From rootsy country jams to sweeping rock ballads to four-on-the-floor dance numbers, the Dead have a back catalogue of originals, covers and traditionals that is virtually unmatched for its diversity. This collection spotlights some of their best tunes, and — thanks to the recruiting talents of project curators Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National — pairs that classic material with contemporary rock music’s top talents.
Standout track: “Cumberland Blues” by Charles Bradley & The Menehan Street Band
Why you should care: Because buying this album is going to be substantially cheaper and infinitely more enjoyable than paying to go see whatever incarnation of the Dead goes on tour next year.
There are scenes from movies, verses from songs, moments in time that took me years to understand. With Blackstar, it took me all of two days. The lyrics were evocative on first listen, but Bowie’s passing was the key to unlocking the ethereal grace within. Free-roaming electro-jazz backs the icon’s howling and fantastically weird swan song. It’s the kind of music that echoes still and always in the deepest parts of me. We are now the Ground Control to Major Tom, wherever he is.
Standout track: “I Can’t Give Everything Away”
Why you should care: Because he gave us everything.
A Seat at the Table
Let’s start by saying that 2016 was an incredible year for hyper-focused, fully realized art, and Solange’s A Seat at the Table is right up there with the best of it. The album is a sweeping, thought-provoking ode to being Black in America. The narrative toggles between Knowles’s personal, micro moments (the track “Don’t You Wait” takes direct aim at tone-deaf comments made by the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica earlier in the year) and macro rallying cries, like “Borderline (Ode to Self Care).” Together, these elements allow the album to function as a much needed conversation — between peers, the informed and the uninformed, the confused — that forces all participants to examine their understandings of the America we live in. Oh, and it sounds damn funky while doing so.
Best Track: ““Borderline (Ode to Self Care)”
Why you should care: Because in 2017 we should all try and have some good conversations with one another. Consider this a starting point.
Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future
Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have been recording music together since 1980. Thirty-six years is a long tenure for any band, but it’s a veritable eon in the world of dance music, where trends come and go with the seasons. Barbara Barbara is Underworld’s eighth full-length album; in between releases, they’ve scored films, collaborated with Brian Eno, and even found the time to co-produce the Opening Ceremonies at the London Olympics. That experience tells here: in the space of seven tracks and 44 mintues, the duo unravels an entire history of electronica, from the Depeche Mode-ian snarl of “If Rah” to dreamy closer “Nylon Strung,” which would be right at home on the main stage of any glitter-and-neon festival on planet earth.
Standout track: “If Rah”
Why you should care: What is most admirable about Smith and Hyde is their camaraderie: where time, money and ego have destroyed so many other great acts, their admiration and respect for one another is evident in every interview, every song and — above all — every electric live performance.
I spent the first few weeks after the year’s most anticipated album was released puzzle-piecing the tracks together on YouTube. I blame Apple Music. Picture Frank Ocean drinking a cup of tea indifferently, whispering remorsefully “these bitches want Nikes,” and you have how I believe the whole record was written. Is there truth in that? Eh … That’s how ambiguous this dude is — could be true; probably isn’t. It’s what I love about him. Blonde projects a special kind of introverted energy, and it works for me. It’s listless, aloof and hookless, but a beautiful, nuanced record, once you take some time to get to know it.
Standout track: “Self Control”
Why you should care: Because when it’s all said and done, this one was worth the wait.
Yours truly waited sixteen years to hear the follow-up to the best album of the 21st century. And this Melbourne duo delivered, maintaining their ridiculously sample-heavy, psychedelic style but adding a touch of hip-hop swagger.
Standout track: “Frankie Sinatra”
Why you should care: Because it sounds like the future, and the past, all at once. Oh, and the Avalanches make the best videos.
Every review of Southern California garage rock prodigy Ty Segall inevitably puzzles over exactly how this guy manages to churn out so many albums that are so f*cking solid. We’re talkin’ two full lengths a year, on average, alongside constant touring to sold-out crowds, and a new band or two every year to wit. Having seen him a dozen times or so, I just think it’s best not to overanalyze something that feels this good.
Standout track: “Breakfast Eggs”
Why you should care: It’s crunchy, carefree rock that’s not ashamed to crib from the greats, which he does freely without being derivative. It’s like taking an acid trip in a room with nothing but your dad’s record collection.
Awaken, My Love
I went into this expecting a rap album. This is not a rap album. Whatever your previously held notion of the type of music that Donald Glover makes, this album is nothing like his previous efforts. This is like if George Clinton, Pink Floyd, D’Angelo and OutKast fathered a collective love child and it decided to make an album. It’s dark and full of the funk, with whining guitars and surprisingly good vocals at every turn.
Standout Track: “Redbone”
Why you should care: Gambino/Glover is the renaissance man of the moment. You should get acquainted with everything he’s doing (including Atlanta, his show on FX).
This sixth solo album from Norah Jones has been marketed as “a kindred spirit to the singer’s breakout debut Come Away With Me.” While the certified diamond sales numbers that album earned are yet to materialize, I’m betting Day Breaks will have a slow burn. Because while every one of her albums has classics, not since her debut has every single track been timeless.
Standout Track: “It’s a Wonderful Time for Love”
Why you should care: Because Norah Jones isn’t just here to tuck you into bed, she’s here for dressing to the nines, taking your lady out for a night of jazz dancing and love-making … and then tucking you into bed.
This Cali band’s fourth album features 10 songs in 24 minutes: all concise, perfect indie-emo singalongs. Did you like ‘90s alt-rock a la Weezer? Hooky modern Pitchfork pop? Either way, you have a new favorite band.
Standout track: “Fake ID”
Why you should care: Today’s pop albums are too damn long. Let’s reward brevity!
When most folks think of a soundtrack for Malibu, they probably think of driving up the PCH, windows down and the Beach Boys blaring. No more. At least not for me. I hear the funky bassline and sly lyrics of Anderson.Paak’s “Come Down,” or his soulful dance banger, “Am I Wrong?” On his second album, Paak is the vocals, the production, the keys and the drums. He announced himself in 2015 by working with Dr. Dre on Compton. But he arrived with Malibu, a cohesive album that’s good from start to finish.
Standout track: “Am I Wrong”
Why you should care: The beat is both fast and laid-back at the same time, which, musically speaking, is no small feat. It’s also distinctly Southern Californian.
“What’s this album about Jenny?” “It’s about vampires.” So states an audio snip that plays midway through Norwegian singer Jenny Hval’s concept album Blood Bitch — called repeatedly “an exploration of blood.” It’s an ambitious project, inspired by vampires, menstruation and 1970s horror films. It’s also completely listenable taken as the quiet, soft bedroom pop that it is, even if you choose not to experience it on anything other than a surface level.
Standout track: “Female Vampire”
Why you should care: Before the Stranger Things intro earwormed into our collective brains, there was the Twin Peaks soundtrack. This album fills the spaces between those sounds.
Back in 2011 I used to smoke copious amounts of grass in a Chinatown tenement occupied by an agoraphobic Cat Dad. He was a friends with Aaron Maine of buzzy indie band Porches. Then Maine stole his girl, a 17-year-old bedroom musician who called herself Frankie Cosmos. Fast forward five years: Cat Dad drops by my place and I tell him I’m going to the Frankie Cosmos concert. “You know that album is about me?” he says. “She wrote those songs after we broke up.” Now it’s one of the best new rock albums of 2016. I didn’t end up going to the concert.
Standout track: “Fool”
Why you should care: It’s all the rage with the kids these days
When I tell someone I’m from Chicago, it’s only a matter of time until they ask, facetiously, if I know Chance the Rapper. Which is cool. But it’s also an opportunity to plug Noname, who first prompted ears with a guest verse on Chance’s Acid Rap back in 2013. She’s a poet from the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood who released her debut in July. Telefone has been on repeat ever since. It’s a little gem chock-full of melodic beats and Noname’s mild-mannered lyrical cadence. Think a youthful Digable Planets, and just as socially-conscious. A must-listen for anyone in search of intelligent verses, especially on beautiful summer days.
Standout track: “Diddy Bop”
Why you should care: Because this is the more introspective, reflective style of hip-hop the world needs right now.
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.
Suggested for you